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Religious (in)Tolerance

Imagine a village.  It’s a somewhat unusual village: everyone in the village has come from somewhere else, and each family has different religious beliefs and customs.  Sometimes even different people in the same family have different beliefs.  


The differences aren’t small, either.  Sometimes one family will have a great big loud festival late into the night and keep the neighbors awake with all the noise.  One of the families can’t share meals at the others’ homes, because their dietary restrictions are so specific.  Another family refuses to visit any home with pictures of people or animals on the walls, since their religion doesn’t allow that type of artwork.  Some believe people are basically good and there should be few rules so their basic goodness can come out, others believe people are basically evil and need many restrictions and punishments to keep them good.

So there are many disagreements, and not everyone gets along well.  However, it is accepted by everyone in the village that everyone else has a right to their beliefs and customs, no matter how odd or inconvenient they may seem to anyone else.  Without this acceptance, there would be no village.

One child of the village grows up and moves to a far-away town.  This town is very different from the village.  Everyone in the town has the same religion with the same core beliefs, but there are many different factions, each of which has somewhat different beliefs and practices.  Most of these different factions think that their faction is the only right one, and actively tries to convert others to their faction.  When the villager arrives, he is immediately asked which faction he belongs to.  When he admits he doesn’t even belong to the same religion as the rest of the town, the townsfolk are shocked.  The poor young man!  He must be saved at once! 

The villager listens to the townsfolk and asks questions, as he settles into his new home, but he makes it clear he is comfortable with his beliefs and doesn’t want to change.  Whenever he says this, the townsfolk try twice as hard to convert him.

At night the villager lies awake, troubled.  He was taught from earliest childhood to respect everyone else’s beliefs, not only the ones that were similar to his, not only the ones that he liked, but all of them.  Even the family that thought bathing was sinful.  All beliefs were good to the people believing them.

So he knew he had to respect the townsfolks’ beliefs too.  He just wished their beliefs worked the same way.



Food, water, shelter, electricity

So the other day I read a cartoon, on a webcomic that isn’t normally political, advocating for nuclear power on grounds that it’s the only viable alternative to fossil fuels.

And I understand and respect that argument.  My main problem is, if those really were the only two alternatives, fossil fuels might still be preferable.  On grounds that as massively destructive as coal mining is (we’re going to hit peak oil soon, but we’re a long way from running out of coal) and as much as it’s possible that global climate change could completely wipe out human beings’ ability to exist, nuclear power is even scarier.  No, I’m serious.  Read up about nuclear waste on wikipedia, or your preferred source of information, look at the the time scales involved, compare how long they are to the entire course of human civilization and think about whether we actually want to mess around with something that can cause that level of havoc over that sort of time scale. 

I mean, seriously, sometimes I have trouble looking ahead six months.  I know as a country  we have trouble looking ahead more than a couple decades, tops.  Maybe in countries that have been around for more than a couple hundred years people can conceptualize longer periods of time better.  But tens of thousands of years, maybe millions?  I don’t believe anybody on the planet is capable of getting their head around that sort of time scale.

Any sane civilization remotely interested in self-preservation would look at the what we know and what we don’t know, recognize that the risks of things getting massively fucked up beyond our ability to fix them or even live with them are just too high, and decide to just not mess with the stuff.  Off limits.  Not an option.  End of story.


It’d be one thing if we’d had electricity from another source for centuries and centuries, so long that figuring out how to live without electricity would be a major hardship, perhaps civilization-crushing, and there was literally no other way to get electricity.  Even then, civilization collapse is something that humanity can recover from.  It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.


And living without electricity?  We’ve done that for most of human civilization.  It’s been done before.  Living without electricity is an inconvenience for most people, but electricity isn’t food and it’s not clean water and it’s not oxygen.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should have to live without electricity.  I think it’s worth looking into flat out using less electricity, and getting more into renewable energy to the extent it’s feasible, and having better technology that provides the same results with less energy.  And perhaps some fossil fuels, used judiciously.

But yikes, nuclear?  When did electricity become something worth messing up the earth for tens of thousands of years (or longer) for?




Losing My Religion

So there’s this thing called the School of the Americas, except it’s now called the Western Hemisphere Something-or-another, and if you already know about it you can skip to the next paragraph.  It’s a place to train Latin American military types in how to commit atrocities.  Like torture and assassination.  I realize it sounds very conspiracy-theory, so you might want to do your own research, but seriously, for real.  This came out of the Cold War, of course, because apparently Communism is scary in a way that human rights violations aren’t?  Anyway, there’s a protest on site every year.

One of the really neat things about the protest is that because so many of the victims of SOA graduates are Catholic, including well-respected clergy, a hefty percentage of the protesters are Catholic as well, and overall the protest has a far stronger religious vibe than, well, any other protest I’ve been to.

Unsurprisingly there’s protesters of other religions (various Protestants, Jews, etc) there as well, and there’s more than a few non-religious types.  

I can only assume that on the other side of the fence are people who are genuinely religious, and people who are fairly certain there’s no God, and people who haven’t really thought about it much.  

Back when the existence of slavery was actually a controversial issue, abolitionists cited the Bible to explain their position, and apologists cited the Bible to explain theirs.  “Slavery is an atrocity” vs “slavery is fine” is not a trivial distinction, any more than “torture is an atrocity” vs “torture is sometimes ok” could ever be.

I suppose you could take the easy way out and say that one side doesn’t understand the situation properly, or the other aren’t true Christians or whatever.  I guess I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt more than that.  But even if you don’t, if you can’t tell true believers from not-true believers apart from their political stances, then maybe it isn’t a relevant distinction.

If people with identical or near-identical beliefs about God can have strong and opposing moral positions, what does that say about theology?

To me, it says that while what one believes may be supremely important on a personal level, there’s no one theological creed where if you could just get everyone to accept it than everyone would be moral.  (Certainly not Christianity!)  Anyone arguing that having the correct theology is the foundation of morality has got it quite backwards.  Wherever we collectively get our morals from, it’s not religion.

No, really, turning off the water when you brush your teeth helps!

Which comes first, knowledge or action?

When I read Zoobooks as a child, they’d often have a short list of things anyone could do (even children!) to help protect endangered species.  Inevitably one of the items was to learn more about it.

Learning is great for its own sake, it can inspire action, and it can make what you do more effective.  But it is not the same thing as doing something.

In general I feel that the opposite has happened in my life: I’m more likely to be inspired to learn more about a cause or movement if I start participating before I fully understand what it’s about, than I am to start taking action because I learned something new.

This is a particular problem in the environmental movement.  Higher socioeconomic status, or income levels, or whatever, is correlated with environmentalism (as a stated priority).  But it’s also associated with: having a larger home, spending more on heating and utilities, traveling more, living in the suburbs and commuting to work by car, owning a car in the first place, and any number of other behaviors that are devastating to the environment.  And which aren’t canceled out by any amount of turning off the light when you leave the room or turning off the water when you’re brushing your teeth, for crying out loud.

There’s a gap between supposedly caring about the environment and actually behaving in ways that protect the environment.  I’m in favor of raising environmental awareness, and I think the relative lack of stories about environmental crisis (compared to, say, the number of stories about hostile invaders that have to be fought back) contributes to the absence of constructive action around actually saving the planet.  But when supposedly caring about the environment does less to protect it than just, well, being poor…

…there’s a problem there. 

Four thoughts on atheism/agnosticism and one on religion

Based on my personal experience:

*Most people who don’t believe in God (or gods or …) aren’t too caught up what word to use to describe that.  “Atheist” and “agnostic” are more likely to indicate degrees of emphaticness than actual beliefs.  (In theory “atheist” means holding the belief that “God doesn’t exist” and agnostic means the belief that “nobody can know whether God exists or not”.  I don’t think I know anyone who uses the term agnostic that way; mostly people calling themselves agnostic are functionally atheist — they do not have a religious practice and do not actively believe in God — but don’t want to get into arguments with people who are religious.)

*Most people who don’t believe in God don’t actively reject the idea of God or spend a lot of time thinking about religion.  It’s less “this is absurd and illogical and inhumane, and here’s why” and more “this doesn’t seem terribly important,” perhaps with a side note of “and some people who believe in God are really scary”.

(I tend to take this concept for granted.  But sometimes I read things written by the more evangelical sorts of Christians who seem to be genuinely under the impression that no one could be an atheist unless they had something horribly traumatic happen to them and are constantly thinking about how angry they are at God … so apparently this “indifference not anger” concept is pretty alien to some people.)

*Most people who don’t believe in God aren’t particularly interested in organizing around the concept, because there’s nothing there to organize around.  It’s like trying to bring people together over a disinclination to go skydiving or a distaste for olives.  There’s nothing there.

Or rather, there are two potential things: feeling left out because other people believe in God and wanting to talk about that feeling of isolation; or an active opposition to organized religion.  (Which is not intrinsic to atheism: disbelief in God and objection to organized religion are discrete concepts.  You can believe in God and detest religion, or be disbelieve in God and but think that religion is basically positive anyway.)  While it’s hard to organize around a lack of interest in something, as a personal preference or even a rationally justified conclusion, it’s easy to organize around an opposition to something seen as bad or harmful.

*Humanism is a positive concept (not based on absence or opposition) that can be organized around.  However, humanism is not incompatible with religion, and not all atheists are humanists.

*Having been raised without religion myself, I had some impressions about religion that I no longer think are accurate.

For one thing, I assumed if I were to choose a religion, the decision would be based primarily on rational agreement with the religion’s tenets of faith.  In practice, it seems like people tend to be at least as motivated by the “feel” a congregation (friendly vs hands off, worship style, how important the congregants consider religion to be in their daily lives) as the congregation’s official beliefs.  Beliefs within any given congregation can vary considerably, even if theoretically everyone’s supposed to ascribe to the same doctrine.  But a very quiet person who likes a lot of personal space is never going to be comfortable in a boisterous, huggy congregation and someone who likes a lot of closeness and connection and who wants to be actively involved throughout the week is going to feel alienated in a congregation where people come in for an hour on Sunday and that’s it.

To a certain extent, religions are more social clubs than they are accumulations of people who share the same philosophy.

This is … I used to think ideas (truth!) were of supreme importance, and how people relate to each other was not that important.  Great minds discuss ideas and small minds discuss people, and all that.  Now, I don’t know.

In Sync

My mind’s been wandering around on the Bible and homosexuality and idolatry and syncretism and really, what’s up with the anti-syncretism thing?  (Syncretism = blending aspects of more than one religion together,) I  guess it’s probably an offshoot of orthodoxy, the general idea that there are Religious Authorities who know what’s going on and will tell you what to do because you don’t know, the Authorities do.  A control thing.  Because good grief, if people can just choose for themselves which parts of which religions to follow, then what do they need the Authorities for?  And it’s the End Of Civilization As We Know it.

I think that must be it.  I have also heard the argument that syncretism is bad, or problematic, because people who syncretize tend to pick the parts they like  and leave out the parts that are inconvenient.  Which gosh, certainly sounds terrible.  Except that those “inconvenient” parts are often inconvenient because they’re kinda bad in some way: isolating one from others, keeping one away from one’s true self, etc.  Or something that made sense in one time and place but doesn’t make sense in modern times.  Genuine religion isn’t just good for you, like multivitamins.  It actually feels good.  Really good.  Sometimes people who have a taste of religion fail to come back for more out of habit, but it’s not because it’s inconvenient or undesirable.  Whereas things that are bad for you spiritually actually make you feel worse.  It’s worth watching out for force of habit and for things that feel good in the short term and bad in the long term (and vice versa).  But mostly people are smart and can figure that out.

The irony is of course that a lot of strong, reliable, true believers who believe exactly what they’re told to … still avoid the hard parts.  How many people out there would insist, if asked, that loving their neighbor (or loving their enemies!) is the core of their religion … and then support war, or denying government services to people in poverty, or are outright racist, or whatever.  They might go to church every Sunday, they might give up sugar for Lent, they might be generous with their time and money … and they’re still not doing the hard part, or the most important part.

Everyone’s a Critic

I’ve been reading a lot of The Fat Nutritionist recently as well as Kate Harding’s “The Fantasy of Being Thin” and the funny thing is, even though I don’t have very much self-consciousness around my weight or my eating habits, so much of this is resonating so deeply.

I am more drawn towards spirituality than most people, and like many people who aren’t particularly comfortable with Christianity but still want something kinda religious, I decided to start meditating on a daily basis.  This was in 11th grade.  I meditated during lunch.

And I’d get really down on myself for not meditating on the weekends as well.  And I’d get really down on myself for letting my mind wander even a little bit — which you’re not supposed to do of course, but I did.  The issues of control and self-denial that were running rampant over the rest of my life easily transferred over into my meditation practice.  So meditation became yet another way to despise myself and to deny myself what I wanted, which was mostly time to just let my thoughts wander without actually having to get anything done.

And every time I’ve tried to establish a regular solo meditation practice since then (entirely solo, or with a group one day a week but on my own the other six) the same thing comes up.  I’m not meditating enough.  I’m not doing it right.  I need to be a different, far better person than the inefficient disorganized time-wasting person that I actually am.

Which is why I do not have a regular meditation practice.

When sexting isn’t

There’s some disconcerting news about of late.  Trigger warnings for rape, slut shaming, and general high school intolerability.  Links here and here.

Both articles are about teenage girls who were — allegedly, right — sexually assaulted, were photographed by their assailants, had to face the humiliation of those photos spreading through their schools and communities, and subsequently committed suicide.  The second article goes into more detail about how the victim was treated by her peers (atrociously) and tells how in that case the police did not press charges against the assailants.

So, firstly, this is horrifying, and a call to action.  However, as I’m not sure what action it makes sense to take (Dan Savage suggests forbidding teenagers from having cell phone cameras, but that may be an overreaction) I’ll do my best to improve understanding of the situation instead.

What makes these stories stand out (neither sexual assault nor suicide being nearly as uncommon as they should be) is the “sexting”, the spreading of the photos of the assaults. So, what’s up with the sexting?  Is it a minor detail?  Something that amplifies the pain of the assaults?  Or is it harmful on its own?

There’s some rather extreme stigma surrounding sex in our culture, especially so for teenage girls.  Girls are shamed for sex they choose to have, especially if it’s outside of social norms (eg, hookup rather than relationship sex.)  As irrational as it sounds, it’s not unusual for rape, assault and abuse victims to feel shame for what was done to them.   So, the shame from being raped can be amplified by others knowing about the rape.

But this applies to consensual sex too: someone who voluntarily, consensually has sex who then has pictures of the sex distributed without consent is also going to be humiliated and shamed and generally discomfited by the experience (although probably not as much as if the original encounter was consensual.)

So now I’m thinking about what a sex act is, and what sexual assault is.  Sex acts don’t always involve physical contact — phone sex can be sex, cybersex can be sex, exhibitionism can be sex.  The reason people (of any age) swap sexy photos with people they’re interested in is because it is a sexual act — perhaps more like French kissing than intercourse, but still a sexual act.

Which means if it’s not consensual, it’s sexual assault.

That fits intuitively — when I empathize with the girls in the articles, the exposure of having the photos distributed is uncomfortable to me in a similar way to the rape itself.

And that’s why the word “sexting” is problematic: because “sexting” comes from “sex”, and sex is consensual.  If it’s not consensual it’s rape.

I think at this juncture it would be helpful to have a linguistic — and legal — distinction between consensual sexting (sexting that the object of the photo does herself/himself/themselves or actively agrees to) and nonconsensual “sexting”.  Rape texting, perhaps.

Because as far as I can tell, currently the only thing the teenage boys in both cases can be charged with (if there’s not enough evidence for the direct assault) is child pornography.  But that ignores the consent distinction, and it does not cover similar situations for adults.  Like Tyler Clementi, who was after all 18.  Sharing sexual photos of a person without his or her permission is a sexual act, it affects the person, and especially for teenagers as we see it can have devastating consequences. It is wrong; I think there are completely reasonable grounds for it to be illegal as well.

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Pretty self-evident, I think.  But in case it’s not:

1. Wealth is not evenly distributed in the world we live in, either within nations or among them.

I take it as given that this is a bad thing.

Specifically, the poverty created by this imbalance of wealth is inherently unjust.  Injustices include worse nutrition and lack of health care, having one’s neighborhood being a dumping ground for pollutants that wealthier people won’t allow in their neighborhoods (or countries), a criminal justice system that is biased against people who can’t afford lawyers or lobbyists, predatory lending … this is not meant to be an inclusive list, just what I could think of off the top of my head.  By injustices, I mean that while part of the suffering of poverty is only in contrast to people who have more, part of the suffering of poverty has to do with wealthier people reaping the benefits of technological progress, imperialism, and the unprecedentedly rapid consumption of natural resources, while poor people pay the costs.  Poverty is not simply an absence of wealth.

2. People who have more wealth often have different interests than people with fewer resources; in particular, people who have more wealth will often act to protect that wealth.

3.  This has nothing to do with charity; charity ameliorates some of the immediate suffering of hunger, poverty, etc, but does nothing to change the underlying structure that creates hunger, poverty, etc.  Getting wealthy and middle-class people to give to charity is relatively easy; getting wealthy and middle-class people to even the system out is much harder.

4. The ability to create change, or to prevent change, is tied to the amount of resources, especially financial resources, that a group of people have access to.

5. Problem in summary: Any attempt to increase the wellbeing of those in poverty at the expense of those with wealth is always going to be handicapped.  Likewise, any attempt to increase the imbalance of wealth will be aided by the simple fact that the people who want that to happen have more power to make it happen, and the people who don’t want it to happen have less power to prevent it.

6. Solutions: The only ways to get people with more resources to help people with fewer are if the wealthier believe that a more equal society is in their best interest, or if they think that while it’s not in their personal best interest it is a greater good that is worth sacrificing some of their comfort for.

7. Or find ways of creating change that don’t rest on having money.

Sex and models of consent; more questions than answers

One of the things that makes any attempt to change human sexual behavior so difficult, is the extreme disconnect that already exists between how people think they should behave sexually, and how they actually do.  (Look at all the people, for instance, who carry on affairs outside of supposedly monogamous relationships.  Or then, look at the outrage Sandra Fluke attracted.  You’d almost think that adults having sex with other adults was an unusual thing.)

What this means is that any attempt to change people’s sexual behavior (from the left or the right or wherever) runs headlong into this problem: even if it succeeds in changing people’s idea of how they should act, how people say they will behave, perhaps even how they say they do behave, it may not affect what people actually do at all.

Me, I’m interested in consent.  I think rape is bad (there’s a daring and controversial position, right?)  I think that being pressured into something you’re not sure you want to do is bad.  I think that two people going ahead and doing something when they’re drunk/high/swept away in the heat of passion, that they wouldn’t do if they’d thought about it clearly first, is probably a bad idea even if it’s otherwise consensual.  Basically, I’m in favor of sex that doesn’t cause harm.  Sex that’s mutually respectful and where both people are mindful of the potential harm to their future selves.

And nobody really disagrees with that, at least not in situations where they’re careful what they say (school?  a workplace sexual harassment training?) 

And we have stories where the hero sneaks into the heroine’s bedroom and watches her sleep, without her knowledge, and this is called romantic.

And we have a culture where most rapes don’t get reported, especially when the perpetrator knows the victim and relies on alcohol or drugs rather than physical force.

Yesterday there was a letter to Dear Abby from a woman asking whether, in a long-term sexual relationship, attempting to have sex with a sleeping partner is a problem.  

And many anti-rape activists point out that the burden of preventing rape should not be put entirely on the shoulders of the potential victims, as it so often is, but rather on the culture as a whole.  And it should be.  As a culture we should rewrite our stories that say that knowing what to do sexually without saying a word is romantic and talking about it is unsexy; we should talk about sex more so that everybody knows what healthy sex looks and feels like; we should give support to people who have been raped who speak up about it.

What I am concerned about is the question of how to talk about consent without making it another ideal that people ascribe to in theory and ignore in practice.

Then again, maybe that’s not a bad thing?  In sports, everyone always talks about the value of being a good sport, and how it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.  And yet you see bad sports everywhere.  Perhaps this is because wanting to win is human nature and we need the value of good sportsmanship for people to have a chance of being decent to each other in the face of that natural drive.  

I don’t know; this is more of a question than an answer.  Part of me thinks that it’s different with sexuality: it’s not a matter of necessary ethical ideals combatting base human nature, but rather a problem of unhealthy and unrealistic (and unnecessary) expectations.